The Open UniversitySkip to content

We have 2 posts going for the coming year – come and work in one of the Open U’s most exciting teams as we roll out and evaluate the system…

Extracts from the KMi Jobs page where you’ll find full details:

Full-time Research Associate

Knowledge Media Institute (KMi)
£29,972 – £35,788, Ref: 7347
Based in Milton Keynes
Temporary contract until 31st July 2012

The Open University’s Knowledge Media Institute has an opening for a Research Associate – SocialLearn. Your responsibility will be to use your understanding of learning and sensemaking online to improving the SocialLearn platform.

Closing date: Thursday 25 August 2011.

Part-time User Experience Developer

Knowledge Media Institute (KMi)
£24,370 – £29,099, Ref: 7344
Based in Milton Keynes
Temporary part-time contract until 31st July 2012

The Open University’s Knowledge Media Institute has an opening for a part-time User Experience Developer on the SocialLearn project. Your duties will include:

  • Developing and preparing use cases and feature specifications that can be implemented in liaison with a web designer/developer;
  • Designing and conducting user trials to gather qualitative (and, as appropriate, quantitative) data;
  • Proposing UI improvements that can be implemented by programmers;
  • Designing, recording and producing user-oriented screencasts about the system;
  • Contributing to the provision of documentation for new or improved products and services.

Closing date: Thursday 11 August 2011.

September 17th, 2010What is a walled garden?

Social learning is about bringing people and resources together, making meaningful connections between them and enabling discussion. But, as Google Buzz showed, there are limits to the connections that people want to make. Individuals, groups of people, and organisations are all engaged in representation management. There’s some information that we are happy to share with everybody, and some that we want to keep private and there are some discussions that we only want to have with trusted individuals. In the case of The Open University, there is an enormous amount of content that is shared freely via OpenLearn, iTunesU and  OUView. At the same time, there are also paid-for courses that you won’t be able to access without registering.

In the case of SocialLearn, we’re aiming to make it as easy as possible to link different resources and different networks. You can sign in to SocialLearn using your Twitter ID, your LinkedIn ID, your Facebook ID and many others. Once you’ve signed in, you can set your privacy levels, and you can join groups with their own privacy levels. On an individual basis this works – but it doesn’t always work on an institutional basis. If another university or organisation joins us, bringing lots of individuals, lots of resources, lots of connections and lots of information, we need a straightforward way for the organisation to manage privacy levels without putting the onus on every student/staff member to deal with this individually. At the same time, we don’t want all those new people cut off from their learning outside that organisation. A related question is, how do we provide minors with safe access to social learning, so that schools can make use of SocialLearn?

We’ve been discussing models for ‘walled gardens’ that allow a high degree of openness and sociability, while allowing us to bring together resources from big providers. Model one is the separate build.

Separate walled garden

Two builds of SocialLearn – one for Organisation X (which might be a university, school or company). They don’t talk to each other, but they are internally sociable. This is straightforward – but an obvious problem is that it negates the need for SocialLearn. People already have their learning divided up into silos – SocialLearn is trying to bring those silos together.

The next model is the internal garden. In this model, the walled garden sits within SocialLearn and forms a subset of it. This is more complicated to construct, because groups are nested within groups. If the wall around the walled garden is impermeable, this is effectively just a more complicated version of separate walled gardens. If the wall is permeable, then is it useful?

Internal walled garden

The other obvious model is the overlapping garden – where the walled garden sits partly inside and partly outside SocialLearn. Again, the problem is with what this means in practice. How freely can connections be made between SocialLearn and the walled garden? Can learners move from one to the other without effort, or do they have to pass through a gate and get permission from a gatekeeper at each point?

With all the models, we found we were less interested in the location of the wall, than in its doors and windows. How easy will it be to look over the wall, and to see what, and who, is on the other side? Can we wriggle through gaps in the wall, or do we have to go through a single gateway? Are people, information and resources trapped within the walled garden or can they leave with a permit? Can learners invite friends in, or link up with friends outside their garden?

These questions suggest that the visualisations on this page aren’t helpful in the long run, because our concern is not with location, but with connections and with movement. The metaphor of the walled garden proved limiting. We are now trying to visualise the problem in terms of information flow, or in terms of connected networks. We haven’t solved the problem, but we’re clearer about what solving the problem will involve.

Overlapping walled garden

Overlapping walled garden

August 14th, 2010Join the SocialLearn team

We currently have vacancies for a Lead Web Developer on SocialLearn and for three Web Developers.

Developers will need:

  • At least two years’ relevant experience in the effective specification, design, development, production or integration of software solutions and systems.
  • Experience of web services development and deployment.
  • A track record of successful delivery to specification within agreed schedule, resources and standards.
  • Proficiency in the development of one or more of: Systems software to support multiple media production; Online services such as for communications, assessment and the provision of learning materials;Scalable, generic software solutions to learning and teaching problems; Integration of multiple systems using web services.

Closing date for applications is 10 September 2010.

April 7th, 2010SocialLearn update

In this presentation, I pick up where the OSRG symposium left off, and give a more in depth update on the SocialLearn project to the Knowledge Media Institute.

I set the scene by flagging the history of research around the concept of social learning, and noting some of the tidal forces that many now recognise as shaping the new education landscape. (The latter are not, however, the focus of this talk so detailed treatment awaits another forum.)

I then introduce some of the core building blocks that the project has identified in seeking an answer to the question, what does it mean to design social media tuned for learning/sensemaking? In our experience, this is the question being asked by organisations exploring the potential of collective intelligence and social learning (including but by no means limited to “Educational Institutions”). Are social learning media just regular social media, but used in a particular way through learner/educator intention and activity, or would they have particular affordances, e.g. designed to provoke deeper reflection and learning conversations, beyond the normal rapid-fire information and media exchange of vanilla platforms (i.e. without ‘learning flavouring’ added!).

One of the results of pondering this are some dimensions of the technology design space which researchers and practitioners can flex when seeking to scaffold social learning with software tools, whether f2f or online. Yes, we want the best of social media platforms, plus…

Social learning technology: candidate dimensions of the design space

Moreover, this has motivated a number of conceptual building blocks that we are now experimenting with…

Mediating social artifacts for sensemaking
Forge meaningful connections between any Question, Step, Path…

…which when pushed in an elevator, I summarise as social+conceptual networks

Social + Conceptual networks

Amongst the many pedagogical frameworks that we have drawn on, we note Engeström’s wildfire learning activities with interest: the idea is that the building blocks provide clues as to how to render his proposed wildfire constructs of inquiry, trails, history, consolidation, argument, landmarks, places, and exploration.

In the final part of the talk, I move to a demo of the SocialLearn Space that is being constructed to provide cross-platform widgets for epistemic communities of inquiry, plus the tools to build, from their myriad identities and activities in the cloud, an aggregated learner profile, thus providing the basis for human and machine recommendations of people and resources.

As we noted in our new year update, SocialLearn’s immediate focus is on testing the concepts with communities within the university. PhD students and the wider researcher community are a particular focus right now (although with the blurring of e-learning and e-research/scholarship, by extension, in a course-oriented context we’d see these as tools for authentic student inquiry). However, when we pilot the tools they will be open to the world, so watch this blog for news.

The slide below shows schematically how the SocialLearn Space provides an integrational layer between currently siloed user activity within the university, and extending out to the cloud, providing the four core functions of Profile, UI, Social Graph and Services:

SocialLearn Space


Following the Open U’s strategic partnership with Google Apps for Education, we are experimenting with Google Gadgets, OpenSocial and FriendConnect to implement the platform, hosted in a Drupal-based portal. As a learner, we provide you with the tools to manage your learning widgets (Google Gadgets), connect your identities (e.g. sign in with OpenID, Facebook, Google, Yahoo!, LinkedIn, etc), maintain your profile (your learning history, interests and where you publish your learning journal, media, etc), and monitor your peers’ activity, and system recommendations through your personalised homepage.

As we demo in the KMi seminar, we’re dropping Gadgets into a range of Open U platforms as we put it through technical and user experience tests. Here’s one example, with Gadgets running in an experimental version of the Open U’s Cloudworks knowledge sharing environment (these are barebones gadgets – no graphic design work done yet!)…

Embedding Google Gadgets in Cloudworks

One of the reasons we’re hosting the SocialLearn team in KMi is to facilitate connections with ongoing semantic web R&D. For instance, from the post-talk discussions, it’s clear that semantic technology could make key contributions to the challenges of merging social graphs from diverse sources, making sense of folksonomic tags, providing good multimedia search results, and recommendations based on content, peer activity and learning intentions. Aspects of the SocialLearn infrastructure will be released open source, with developer events now being planned.

So, you think you have a great learner gadget or computational service?

Prove it! My personal vision for SocialLearn is that it comes to serve as a commons-based innovation space: new end-user tools and backend services can be plugged in and out of a cleanly defined, scaleable architecture, for applied research on a large dataset and user base, enhancing the learner experience with the services and gadgets that add most value — as deemed by the people at the centre of a social media platform tuned for learning: learners and educators. You and your team can doubtless improve on the virtual rack of recommendation engines, provide more effective visualizations of social or conceptual networks, or provide cool connections to the many other tools out there that we want to dnce with. Think social media app store — but yes you got it: tuned for learning/sensemaking (and often, open source).

Sounds fun. But here for me is the kicker: if we can get it right, what we’d be doing collectively is building a suitably anonymised dataset which could become a commons-licensed (non-commercial?) resource for large scale social learning R&D. Every gadget and service is contributing data that can be mined and reasoned about. Haven’t worked the small print on that one through yet!…

Your views welcomed.

January 7th, 2010SocialLearn 2010

Happy New Year Everyone…
May 2010 be an Open, Social, Connected year for us all!

Things have been busy here on the SocialLearn project since the summer, and since we’d been hoping for a Q4 public beta launch, it’s about time we gave you an update.

John Seely Brown and Richard P. Adler: Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0We’ve been pondering long and hard what it means to tune social media spaces for learning. We’ve been building prototypes, and seeing what makes and breaks the user experience. And believe me, along with some very positive responses from our 1000+ early beta test users, we also heard loud and clear when we didn’t get that experience right! So, lots of detailed design work to tune.

We’ve also been presenting the motivation and design concepts for this work to all sorts of audiences from education and government, to business and foundations, plus a few public forums. We’ve been  getting an overwhelmingly consistent message: As we contemplate an education system, and workplace learning, deemed by most thought leaders as increasingly not fit-for-purpose in the 21st Century, the SocialLearn team has made some significant steps forward in its thinking and design.

None of the team has ever presented anything that had so positive a response. But the ultimate irony, in an open social world, would be to think we can navigate these rapids alone.

Meanwhile the world has not stood still… more and more people have been tuning into learning of all hues as one of the compelling, untapped applications for the participatory, large scale conversations that the social-semantic web enables, which is exciting to see. Oh, and the planet went into financial meltdown, which has hit us as hard as many other institutions.

So… even as we get a grip on the design challenges, the sands are shifting under our feet. We’re therefore about to transition out of our strategic “exploratory project” status within the OU as follows:open

  1. We’re moving from operating as a confidential business project, to an open source, open architecture, open partnership modus operandi. In forthcoming posts we’ll share how we’re thinking about the challenges and opportunities, and invite your participation.
  2. One area of focus up until now was to explore whether the project could generate new revenue streams. This is no longer a current priority, so we’re not seeking to create a joint venture with commercial partners.
  3. Internally, we’re building a light, agile, responsive space to be rolled out for use initially by OU communities (students, staff, alumni). Once it’s proved its worth, we’ll then open it up to informal learners outside the OU.
  4. In parallel, in order to take the work to the next level we’re also seeking external R&D funding and, as a result, will be engaging in-depth with external partners and their communities, to shape the user experience to their particular needs.

social-learning-circleWhat we’re also saying, of course, is that we’re not about to throw open the doors to a public site, as originally envisaged. Sorry to disappoint, but it’s an uncertain design space we’re in here, and we’re not there yet.

The next phase is going to be the most interesting, and we’ll keep you posted 🙂

Image sources:

John Seely Brown and Richard P. Adler: Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0

Joel Greenberg on Code, Community & Commerce for Open Social Learning at Open Social Learning 2009 [Twitter archive]

Pioneers of Change‘s work on Dialogue and Learning: a social, relational, conversational, transformative and liberational Learning Circle, South Africa. [Twine photo]

© 2008 SocialLearn Research Blog | iKon Wordpress Theme by Windows Vista Administration | Powered by Wordpress